Monday, May 25, 2009

Nantai-San, Nikko National Park

Amy here…

Spared on by our recent achievement at Tsukuba-san, we gathered our wits together and decided that in Golden Week, we would climb another mountain. After all we need all the practise we can get before facing Mount Fuji!

it's not that big really!

Our choice was Nantai-san, which at 2,486m high is bigger than anything that can be found in the UK. Nantai-san can be found in the Nikko National Park, about 90 minutes by train from Sugito. According to our untrustworthy hiking guidebook, Nantai-san is classified as an ‘easy-medium’ climb. Now I’m not entirely sure how they come to these ratings but I’m starting to think that it’s only an easy climb when compared to climbing Mount Everest, with no shoes, one arm tied behind your back and blind folded!

A perfect day for climbing
Lake Chuzen

For once our guidebook gave us accurate instructions on how to get to the foot of the mountain, the start of the climb is actually through the Futarasan Chugushi Shrine, visiting the shrine itself is free, though they do levy a 500 yen fee (per person) for the pleasure of climbing the mountain.

The Shrine

We spoke to a young girl at the Shrine shop, and explained that we wanted to climb the mountain. We received a firm ‘honto?’ - which means ‘really?’ You could almost see the unspoken sentences forming in her mind ‘but… but… your foreigners!’ she promptly tried to discourage us by explaining that the climb was difficult, and would take over 6 hours.

Eventually, she must have realised that we were going for it anyway, so after making sure we had water with us, she relieved us 1000 yen and started talking us through the safety precautions (in Japanese) and explaining where all the safety huts are on the climb. We were also told that 13 other people were currently climbing the mountain whilst she gave us a pair of tags and a basic map.

1 hour into the climb - san, ni, ichi - pose!

In hindsight, the girl was probably more shocked that we weren’t kitted out with full SAS-style survival gear, rather than a single day-pack, T-Shirts and sunglasses! ...and, we didn't have a single pack horse between us!

The start of the hike was actually a locked gate, so we had to go through a small wooded area to get to the main path and began a very steep climb that just got steeper and steeper. At quite a few points on the climb, I thought I was going to have to use my arms and actually climb the mountain, rather than hike up it.

(Carl here... after doing a little research on the internet after the climb, this gate isn't opened until May 5th, when they 'officially' open the mountain!)

The Scenery
The mountain varied considerably in nature, what started as open woodland...

The start of the climb

led to a winding road...

then very thick woods where we almost lost the track a few times...

followed by very loose boulders...

more woods then lots and lots of deep snow,

then finally lots of red volcanic rocks and yes, more snow!

The Adventure...
It was a very hot day, maybe 30 degrees, with the sun beating overhead when we started the ascent, so we were very surprised when we first saw a thin layer of ice. I started the climb in a vest top because it was so hot!

...note the ice behind Amy!

As we climbed further up the mountain, we met a few of the Japanese climbers and one guy told us that there was snow ahead, a little while later we saw to our disbelief a thin sprinkling of snow on the ground.

And then we turned the corner and saw this.....

Winter Wonderland...

…needless to say that we were more than a little shocked. The route was completely covered in snow and we had no choice but to walk through it. As we ventured further, I was suddenly missing a leg. The blanket of snow was actually over 2m deep in places and I’d managed to fall through with one of my legs. I had to ‘save’ myself because Carl was too busy laughing and taking this photo….

…though a few short moments later I was laughing because Carl became victim to a hole in the snow.

Naturally I just had to take a photo of his misfortune!

This part of the climb turned out to be great fun, we were constantly laughing (…at each other!) but the going was slow, but steady. It amused me to see us overtaking many of the seasoned Japanese mountain climbers, all in full climbing gear, most of whom were taking a break before they tackled the rest of the snow covered trail.

We finally reached the summit after about 5 hours climbing, which is quite a quick ascent (according to our guide book), though we could have made it a lot quicker without the snow!

Amy, setting up the 'victory' shot!

At the top was the usual shrine plus a semi-abandoned building. The exact peak was a large rock formation with a huge ‘sword’ sticking out of it.

The 'victory' shot!

The view was spectacular, the clear air and as much snow as you could wish to play with! We also had a great view of the surrounding mountains and Chuzen-ji ko (Lake Chuzen).

I felt that the descent had a greater element of danger to it. The loose rocks and boulders that were tricky to climb up made the descent more than a little interesting. Also, the pace that Carl sets when hiking, make even the easiest of climbs into an endurance event!

The photos speak for themselves; it was a great pleasure to climb the beautiful mountain, especially since it took us away from the crowds that always flock to Nikko, seeing something completely off the beaten track. We also had the most fun that we’d had in a long time (especially through the snow!).

The climb wasn’t easy though, and the different types of terrain made some parts very challenging. If you know what you’re doing, and you’re reasonably fit, then the mountain shouldn’t cause you any problems.

On top of the world!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

NEW INTERN v5.0 - Louise Speaks up...

Carl here,

In as little as five weeks, the TWO new Interns Louise Fisk (from New Zealand) and Erica Ip (from Canada) will be arriving in Japan to take over from the British Intern Tag Team. So, us Brits thought it was about time to get to know the replacements a little bit better...

Amy interviewed Louise and I've been given the job of posting the answers (Amy was busy at work!).

Please tell the readers a little about yourself……

I’m 23 years old, and I was born and grew up in the 'raging metropolis' of Hamilton, now the fourth largest city in New Zealand (not that that is saying much in global terms). I like to eat chocolate cake and go wandering in the mountains, preferably at the same time. Sometimes I’ve been known to do monkey impressions, usually after several hours of walking without the benefits of chocolate cake.

When I’m not eating cake, falling off cliffs or dragging my knuckles along the ground, I earn a bit of money measuring trees, digging holes and boiling soil in acid (don’t treat soil like dirt by the way: your life depends on it).

I also occasionally become respectable and sit in front of a computer and produce serious, mature scientific reports.

Fig. 1: Working hard or hardly working?

When did you first start karate and what grade are you currently at?

I started karate in my second year of high school (where did that decade go?). I’m currently a 3rd Dan, having graded only a month or so ago.

Why did you start karate in the first place and why did you stick with it?

I thought that karate would be good for self-defence (not of course that I intended to get into situations where I’d need it). By sheer chance, Sensei Robbie Smith was running classes at my school. I didn’t find learning karate easy, and had to work hard at mastering techniques. I found there was and is always something more to learn and as I don’t want to miss out on anything, I’m still training.

Fig. 2: Garrr

What do you believe is your greatest achievement in karate and why?

Learning how to teach. I remember my first classes attempting to lead a kata, explain a technique or keep kids interested, and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done (luckily the kids didn’t possess rotten tomatoes with which to give feedback). Now I find that, on a good day, teaching is one of the most rewarding things I do, and I believe that it is one of the most important things we as karate people do: passing on what we have learned.

When did you first think of coming to Japan?

My mother has at times told me that I’m disgracefully nosey, and at primary school I always dreamed about travelling the world and assuaging my curiosity about how other people in other countries lived. I can’t honestly say I specifically wanted to go to Japan then, but as I learnt Japanese at high school, Japan definitely became one of those exotic places I had to find out about for myself.

Please describe your image of Japan.

At the moment I imagine a very technologically advanced nation, with lots and lots of people packed together on whatever flat land there is available, and consequently with many social conventions allowing them to live together in such close proximity. I also imagine that beneath the modern world-wise surface there are depths of tradition that leak out all over the place, though possibly not always where a foreigner would expect.

Fig. 3: Me and my turpentine bush

What do you hope to achieve in your year as intern?

I would like to become part of the Shiramizu karate family, make friends and achieve world peace through a judicious application of martial arts training.

How do you think the karate training will differ from your own country?

I suspect that it will be more regimented, more focussed on perfecting basic techniques, possibly by repeating them over and over again. Hopefully it will have less of hitting people over the head with big sticks.

Where do you hope to visit in Japan?

I’d like to visit mountains. Mountains with lots of trees, mountains that smoke and blow up, mountains with sparkly rocks and mountains near the sea. I’d also like to visit small villages and towns. Out of the way places.

Is there anything specifically Japanese that you would like to learn while in Japan? i.e origami

I’d like to learn how to survive on trains in rush hour. It would also be cool to learn taiko drumming and kenjutsu, however they seem to be things that require a lot of time and dedication, time and dedication that I devote instead to karate.

Fig. 4: Morning commute, West Coast, NZ

What do you think you will miss the most while you are here in Japan?

I will miss my karate classmates making fun of my height. I will also miss having my brother around to explain why my computer is making funny noises.

Is there anything else that you would like to say…………………..

In a nutshell: ooga booga, mimble wimble, raarrrr.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Tsukuba San

Carl here for a report on our recent Mountain climbing exploits... Tsukuba-San.

At 877m (2877 ft), Tsukuba isn't a particularly huge mountain though even on most cloudy days it can be clearly seen from Sugito. We're hoping to climb Fuji-san later in the year so it seemed to make sense to climb a few 'baby' mountains first, to get a feel for the difference in climate.

The journey
We left Wado station at 10 o'clock and had a bit of false start trying to get to the mountain because I managed to mis-read the Kanji on my phone 'train finder' and decided to take us to Kita-Senju station - maybe 90 mins from Sugito instead of Kasukabe station - maybe 15 mins from Sugito! Though I'm sure it's a mistake anyone could have made... maybe! What can I say, Japanese is difficult enough without trying to muddle your way through 6000 different Kanji!!!

Anyway, back to the story...

According to my guide book, there was no direct train to Tsukuba-town because the locals decided to shut down the train station that used to service the area. So, we had to get the train to a nearby town instead, and then take a 40 minute bus ride to Tsukuba.

BAD Bus Drivers
Once at Tsukuba, we wondered around looking lost until we found which bus we needed and then headed towards it. I think the bus driver was feeling 'mean', or maybe he just didn't want to try dealing with foreigners because he saw us walking towards his bus and decided to close the bus doors and leave early!

This gave us a 30 minute wait in the baking sun for the next bus to take us to the start of the hike. The bus was full of Japanese people, and I had the unfortunate pleasure of a little boy being sat behind me. Every 30 seconds he decided to kick the back of my chair which (along with the heat) made the journey a little unpleasant.

New Friends
But, I decided to make friends with him and gave him and his grandmother a sweat (Mitsuya Cider - if you were wondering), then to my surprise this little boy starts talking to me in VERY GOOD English. His name was Rikuto, and he was 4 years old. He asked me my name, Amy's name and how old we were!.

My guidebook told me that this bus ride should only take 10 minutes, but we arrived at the start point an hour later. By this time it was close to 1pm!

We walked uphill for a few minutes and arrived at the Shinto Shrine at the foot of the mountain.

Folk Tale... in traditional costume...

We skipped the folk tale by the 'Samurai' because we didn't understand a word of it, but the Shrine itself was worth a look around.

The lazy way to travel...!

(If you're feeling lazy, you can take a short train ride up to the top of the mountain from here.)

We started the walk up the Miyukigahara course (御幸ヶ原コース).

Let the hiking begin!

The walk up was pretty straight forward, it was a relatively well maintained, though well worn route. With lots of people going up and down with us. Everyone was very friendly with a firm 'Konnichiwa!' from everyone you met, though some were particularly interested in us, the usual questions followed - who are you? where are you from? how long are you staying in Japan etc...

Not wanting to mess up again, I wisely checked the map!

One surprise was a guy in a full, bright Orange 'Son-Goku' Dragonball costume. He was thrilled that we were also Dragonball fans and we immediately recognised the costume! Though I'm sorry to say that I didn't get a photo.

The view from the top!

We got to the top within 90 minutes and we were greeted with tons of shops, and even a rotating restaurant of all things! There were a lot of people around, all queuing for ice creams. Though most had clearly taken the train up the mountain!

From here, it was a short walk up to the first peak. Mt Nantai @ 771m...

Then it was a 10 minute walk past the souvenir shops to the second (and highest peak). Mt Nyotai @ 877m...

On the way you pass this:

A 'toad' shaped rock formation. Legend says that if you can lodge a stone in the toads mouth (like the child is trying to do) then you'll receive good fortune. I tried and missed the toad completely!

The view on this side of the mountain was much nicer, though much busier!

We opted to double back on ourselves rather than take the circular route because we weren't sure of the bus schedule. As it turned out, we luckily caught the last bus back to Tsukuba centre.

GREAT Bus Drivers
Which is were we hit a problem... we didn't have any coins to pay the bus fair, the smallest note we had was 5000 yen and the driver couldn't split it. The driver was really patient and a genuinely nice guy, despite our lack of language skills. I tried to get change in the bus station, but the office was already closed, so he offered to let us ride for free, which I refused. I ended up running to a department store across the street to get some change. We thanked the driver and headed to the 'Tsukuba Express' subway station for the journey home.

Apparently my hiking guidebook was printed before 2005 when this subway was built. It's a private line so it's a little expensive, but it cut 90 minutes off our journey home so it was worth it! Oh and yes, we could have taken this train on the morning too!!! D'oh!

Narita Drum Festival

It's all about teamwork

Hello, it’s Amy here.

This blog post has been on my to-do list for a while now, so please forgive the lateness. On the 12th of April, we (being me and Carl), set off to meet up with a friend of ours called Maja. Maja has been in Japan now for many years, and has been a good friend to all the interns. She is always at the major competitions throughout the year that the intern takes part in. (There is also an Interview that last year’s intern did with Maja in the archives.)

Maja had invited us to a drum festival that was taking place in Narita. It was a lovely sunny day in Japan and the heat was rising. After finally finding each other at Chiba train station, grabbing a quick bite to eat and finally getting the right train we arrived in Narita at about 1 o'clock.

It was fun getting through the crowd!

The first thing that I noticed was a beat in the air, the second thing I noticed was the mass of people blocking all the streets. The police had done a great job of blocking off all the roads so that the drum parade could go through the streets unhindered...

...but the thousands of people who had travelled to Narita had been squashed into the narrow streets that lined the route of the parade. Making moving from place to place very difficult.

{Carl here - Can you tell that Amy's Day job is being a Police Officer back in England? Most people just don't appreciate the hard work of the Police :-)}

We soon found the parade which was a mass of colour, costumes and enthusiasm.

The excitement and fun rubbed off the people taking part in the festival and onto the crowd.

The Japanese ethos seems to be 'if its worth doing give it a 110 percent'. There was not a single look on the drummer’s faces of someone being coerced or being bored.

Deep in concentration...!

They smiled and jumped about. They took a real delight in what they were doing and were very proud of their skills.


The participants aged from around 3 years to 90 plus. (However there was a newborn baby fast asleep in one if the drumming floats.)

We made our way carefully to the Naritasan Shishoji Temple.

By this point the crowds had become vast, and due to the fact that I am vertically challenged and unable to see past the crowds we decided that we would look around the temple and the gardens while the masses were still watching the parade.

Maja and Amy... Paparazzi!

The gardens were a peaceful retreat compared to the bustle of the streets. It was a mini wilderness, with streams and waterfalls.

The cherry blossoms were still in season too, making the beautiful garden/temple well worth a visit with or without the festival.

By the time we had finished touring the garden the festival was over and the crowds had dispersed. We walked up the street back towards the train station, it was then that I noticed the streets were traditional Japanese buildings. (They were easy to miss with thousands of people in the streets).

This was Maja' delicious looking dessert.

We then ate in one of the many restaurants, the cakes could have found themselves in an art museum! I was then time to say good bye and return to Tokyo.